Thoughts on tasting at Harlan
I did my annual visit to Harlan yesterday. Actually, I missed last year, so we went through the entire portfolio of both the 2007s, which were just released, and the 2008s, which will be out in Spring 2012. I will report my reviews and scores elsewhere, but in the meantime, some interesting issues popped up.
I tasted blind, alone. This took about 45 minutes, or about 3 minutes per wine, which is fast, but not exactly the power-tasting some critics practice. Afterward, Paul Roberts, the sommelier, and Don Weaver of Bill Harlan’s staff joined me. I particularly was glad that Paul, who had impressed me so much with his knowledge at the Taste of Oakville Master Class, was able to assist me in understanding the wines. Later, Mr. Harlan himself came in, and we all had a hearty conversation.
One of the topics that arose concerned blind tasting. I’m a bit infamous now at Harlan for always liking The Matriarch so much, and I did yet again with the 2007. It’s Bill’s least expensive wine, at $85 considerably less than many another Napa Bordeaux blend. (All of Bill Harlan’s wines are called red wine, even though many, maybe most, qualify legally as Cabernet Sauvignon.) The Matriarch is a blend of the five BOND wines ($340 each), which are single vineyard wines from vineyards Harlan does not own, but has rigorously developed over years before admitting them to BOND-dom.
Concerning Matriarch, I was interested in two things: How was it determined which lots of BOND go into BOND wines, as opposed to The Matriarch. Obviously, these are subjective decisions, arrived at by the team that does the deciding (winemakers, Michel Rolland, Paul, Bill, maybe Don — I’m not 100% sure). I would imagine there’s initial disagreement, as you’d expect there to be in any group decision, until consensus is reached. So there’s a certain arbitrariness to the selection process. (Some of the lots are even sold off as bulk.)
The other thing, which I asked Paul about specifically, was the old concept of whether a blended wine could not be more complete than a single vineyard wine, which might contain divots–slight deficiencies here and there, in acidity, tannins, color, aromatics, finish, etc. A blended wine, by contrast (remember, we’re talking theory) can be a more intricate tapestry. This is a trusted concept in wine, celebrated in Champagne, although not in terroir-intensive places like Burgundy (although I’ve had great California Pinot makers tell me there’s no reason why a blend of, say, Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley couldn’t make for a better wine than either one separately).
This is a touchy subject, one that critics justifiably might fear to broach, especially after having just praised the blend, as I had with 2007 Matriarch. Paul replied, as I knew he would, that while a blend such as The Matriarch might reflect the winemaker’s “craftsmanship” to a very high degree, it could never “break through” mere craftsmanship to “hit the pinnacle” of Grand Cru status.
This is a very powerful argument, one that is impossible to refute. It would be like saying that an authentic Da Vinci was no better than a painting from the School of Da Vinci. My reply was that I am apparently the only reviewer who tastes Harlan’s wines blind. It is very easy, when you are staring at the bottle, to be consistent and say that Harlan Estate shows a purity or power or whatever that Matriarch or The Maiden (which is a lot selection from the estate vineyard, made precisely the same way as Harlan Estate) do not. Anyone can find greater complexity in the BOND vineyard bottlings than in The Matriarch if they come prepared with that belief and the bottles are standing before them.
It is true that I found the 2008 Matriarch “a little rude,” as I wrote in my notes, and did not score it in the same league as the seven other 2008s. I think my hosts were pleased that, finally, I had stumbled into the truth that The Matriarch is of somewhat lesser quality than Maiden or the BONDS, much less Harlan Estate itself. But one thing Paul and to some extent Bill kept reverting to was that, while the wines early on may show attractive features, it’s the ability of the greater growths–the BONDS, Harlan ($750 and counting) and, I suppose to some extent, Maiden ($150)–to age over 15-20 years that makes them special, compared to Matriarch. To that, I could observe only that if Bill Harlan will invite me to some verticals of these wines, it might better help me to understand them when they’re young. I’m told he may be considering just that.